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Finally, dining in Ward 7

(Published September 11, 2000)

By OSCAR ABEYTA

Staff Writer

Denny’s manager and partner Dwight Brunson in front of his restaurant at Benning Road and East Capitol Street, the only full service eatery in Ward 7.

Ward 7 in the far eastern corner of the District has long been described as under-served. Its dearth of supermarkets, retailers, movie theaters and hospitals, among other services, is well documented and has been part of the ward’s political lexicon for years.

But now, one of the items on the list of services missing from the ward can be scratched off: a sit-down restaurant.

As incredible as it may seem to residents of Adams Morgan, Dupont Circle and Capitol Hill, the 73,000 or so residents of the area had to travel outside the ward if they wanted to go out to dinner where they could sit down. Since the Chef’s Table buffet closed last year, the only options for restaurants were carryout joints or the Chesapeake Bagel Bakery on Minnesota Avenue NE.

But last December, two friends who worked in the area and knew its needs opened a Denny’s restaurant at Benning Road and East Capitol Street NE.

Raphael Ehilen, who owns the franchise, and his partner Dwight Brunson, who manages the restaurant, met while working at the Dominoes Pizza outlet on Minnesota Avenue NE. It was while working there, Brunson said, that they realized the neighborhood needed a place where families could go to get a good meal.

"The dream began in 1995," he said. "We realized there was a need for a restaurant in the area."

Ironically, the location they found is across the street from the Chef’s Table, the last sit-down restaurant in the ward. Brunson said that’s more coincidence than planning, noting they chose the location for its high traffic volume and its proximity to the Metro station.

"When we saw the location, we knew it had to happen," he said.

He said the representatives from Denny’s corporate headquarters who saw the site thought the location was ideal for their first location in the District.

"When they came to look at this site they said, ‘This is going to work,’" Brunson recalled.

Brunson doesn’t miss the irony of a Denny’s locating in a part of town that is 97 percent black. He said when they first put up signs announcing they were going to open there, some people in the neighborhood were apprehensive, given the chain’s highly publicized incidents of racial discrimination at some locations.

"A lot of people around here had never been to a Denny’s," he said. "All they knew was what they heard in the media."

He said once they opened up, though, people grew comfortable with him and his staff. He said he currently employs between 50 and 60 people, most of them from the neighborhood or the District.

Evelyn Frasier, business development manager for the Marshall Heights Community Development Organization, said her group is trying to encourage more eateries and small businesses to locate in the ward.

"We’re working very actively to attract restaurateurs or franchises to the area," Frasier said. She said they have been helping put together demographic information about the neighborhoods, conducted tours of the area and been in touch with commercial brokers to try to assist businesses that want to locate east of the Anacostia River.

"There’s been a lot of renewed interest in urban markets lately," she said.

Brunson said he’s spoken with representatives from other chain restaurants who are scouting locations, but he said he gets the impression people are waiting to see if he succeeds there first. He said he’s not worried, though. The restaurant is ahead of schedule toward becoming profitable and he and his partner are already talking about opening another location in the District, Brunson said.

He won’t say where – yet.

Copyright © 2001 The Common Denominator